Associations, Do You Want to Survive or Thrive?

It’s not enough for associations to create top-notch digital content. The ones that really get it and futureproof themselves are thinking in a whole new way.


You’ve changed things.

You’re guiding your association into the next generation, dealing with the threats of evolving technology, increasing competition for your audience’s attention and pricing pressures.

That’s why you built that nice website, broadcast your content through multiple digital formats, and offer webinars and online networking opportunities for members. So why are you still struggling?

For many associations, the real question is: Are you looking ahead or just playing catch-up?

For many, it’s the latter. Your association likely provides the same foundational supports it always has—content, community and career development—but the way you provide them has to adapt.

That’s why so many associations are caught in a self-defeating cycle of catch-up, trying to identify and capitalize on the latest trends in delivering education or content.

While your value proposition remains the same, the paradigm has shifted. And we’re not just talking about the channels where you’re delivering them. The associations that are successful now are doing much more than simply creating digital content, planning webinars and holding an annual conference.

To thrive, an association has to have two parts of an equation: a clear and sustainable value prop for members, and a stickiness factor.

Marrying these two ideas is where the money is—the value creation that will endear members and prospective members to you, engendering stickiness and growth. That’s the formula for lasting success: the secret sauce.

Leverage your credibility

Associations have a tremendous advantage: built-in credibility and clout.

This is why content remains such a powerful force—one that spells associations’ future. As a trusted content provider, you have several advantages over the sea of talking heads and self-proclaimed experts who too often trade in platitudes or provocative tweets instead of anything of real substance.

The first step is to take a hard look at the content that’s out there and determine what you can do better. Chances are, there’s a lot.

That’s the tack Steve Fox took when he became vice president of membership at the American Nurses Association (ANA) in 2011. The organization, which currently represents 4 million registered nurses, was built around membership, with more than two-thirds of its revenue coming from that side of the business.

But membership was lagging, as more nurses turned to outside opportunities to network and communicate, and competing specialty associations lured away members with the promise of providing more relevant services to nursing subgroups in a time when more nurses were specializing.

ANA was Fox’s first association job, having spent most of his career in the private sector. With a background in marketing and brand, Fox knew that to grow, the organization needed to project much more relevance.

ANA had to start segmenting beyond one-size-fits-all. The challenge was how to maintain ANA’s big tent—its appeal to several hundred thousand nurses across regions, ages and specialties.

To increase relevance, Fox had ANA adopt a segmentation model, parceling membership into distinct groups with specific, actionable needs. But slicing up such a huge, heterogeneous population into groups wasn’t simple.

Fox knew that his organization could handle only a few segments before it would become too overwhelming to deal with the data, create the right programming and execute.

The staff talked about segmenting by role, education or job title—but it wasn’t ideal. Focusing on one job title over another, for example, could unintentionally alienate huge swaths of the nursing population by giving the false impression that one position is less important than another.

They also ruled out segmentation by specialty, since other specialty associations are active in the space. To figure out a different direction, ANA held focus groups and one-on-one sessions with nurses, probing into needs that cut across a critical mass of people.

After a few sessions, a clear direction emerged: Fox’s team realized that nurses had different needs at each career stage. As the conversations progressed, the researchers noticed this broke out into three distinct groups: early career (first four years); up-and-comers (years five through 14) and nursing leaders, who have spent 15 or more years in the field establishing their positions and creating a legacy along the way.

This new differentiation model allowed ANA to craft content that could speak at once to huge numbers of members and prospective members while still feeling hyper-relevant to the individual.

For example, the organization knew that for early career nurses, workplace bullying can be a huge issue. It created a free webinar called “Surviving Bullying.” Ten thousand people signed up in a week and a half, allowing ANA to create a reliable database.

For a big association like ANA, the segmentation strategy is not comprehensive. “We haven’t divided the world into three,” Fox notes, but the trio of groups represent the three biggest swaths of opportunity for the organization.

Largely as a result of this strategy, membership was up 49% in the five years ending in 2017, Fox says.

When the ANA launched segmented content, it resonated because the organization had tapped into a strategic direction that maximized relevance to its audience. Its free webinars engaged and excited members because the content was incredibly powerful, very timely and came from a source that nurses intrinsically trusted—their association.

What ANA realized is that it couldn’t and didn’t want to compete with the nursing profession’s self-proclaimed thought leaders publishing on LinkedIn and tweeting with abandon. Fox realized what many associations still struggle to understand: Use your powerful brand equity to become an authority for your members—scrutinize what’s out there and make clear, sound judgments to ensure that your audiences know what matters most.

Creating important, resonant content didn’t just galvanize existing members, it also “attracted nonmembers to our orbit,” says Fox.

The side benefit to operating this way is that when you take on this strategic exercise, you will quickly discover the white space: the useful content that could be produced, that isn’t out there and freely available for your members and larger community.

That’s your cue to step in and create that content that fills the void, as ANA did.

Who needs members?

Peggy Winton, president of the Association for Intelligent Information Management (AIIM), also brought a marketer’s sensibility to her organization. With her background in technology marketing, Winton realized long ago that when it came to AIIM, non-dues-paying members were even more valuable than paying ones who simply don’t engage.

“Joiners,” as she calls them, just pay their dues and don’t do much of anything else. But when people are interested in engaging—even if they’re not a member—that leads to a community that is constantly looking for products and services, rather than consuming passively.

That realization changed how she thought about the business. The organization had already moved away from its big annual trade show, which was sold in the early 2000s to an expo-management company.

Instead, Winton says, her focus shifted to creating a broader community that could be monetized much more effectively. Her first job, she says, was to build a portfolio of content-driven programs like webinars, research reports and other assets completely from scratch.

How much do users pay for those assets? In many cases, nothing at all. “Eighty percent of what we do is free,” Winton says. She’s not concerned about giving so much away because of the model she’s built. This came from seeing opportunity where others might see danger. One of the association’s challenges, Winton says, came as its audience shifted in recent years.

Information management has always struggled to feel like a true “profession,” because its practitioners stretch across so many disciplines. That reality became even more pronounced as the profession grew from IT specialists to those who were doing that job within a particular line of business, like health care or manufacturing.

In many of those companies, tech decisions are no longer made solely by technology specialists but rather leaders in the line of business. While these people are not necessarily interested in becoming yearly members of an IT association, they still have important needs that AIIM can uniquely fulfill on a one-off or short-term basis. And that opens the door to future paying opportunities, like attending an event.

Winton knew that AIIM could take advantage of these new personas who were joining the mix. While AIIM still offers its $169-a-year membership (as of 2019) replete with premium content, virtual events and ongoing consulting, as well as training and certification, the association is now expanding its business model.

It’s turning to the sell-side for new opportunities. Companies looking to partner with AIIM or sponsor their content love the line-of-business consumer, Winton says. These consumers are often first-time shoppers, actively seeking solutions because they’ve been tasked with a particular technology challenge.

“There’s value in the extended community,” Winton says. “Not only in customer potential with our vendors but infinite value in the intelligence they provide.” Sell-side technology vendors, looking to tap into these consumers, have become key partners in the production of content.

They might pay $15,000, for example, to be the exclusive sponsor of a webinar, or they might underwrite research on a particular topic and get featured in the resulting research report.

With her marketing background, Winton knows all too well the importance of measurement. Because so much of the organization’s strategy is built around content that’s free to consume, AIIM is relentlessly focused on data collection.

The community, as Winton calls it, includes 155,000 active subscribers—that is, those who have raised their hand and agreed to take some kind of qualified action, like downloading a whitepaper that then enables the organization to know who they are.

From there, the focus is on nurturing and tracking leads through the marketing automation software HubSpot. Using those leads, AIIM staff can see how well content is performing, which topics are resonating and who’s most engaged.

The whole operation, Winton says, revolves around the intelligence AIIM is constantly collecting and responding to.

Repurpose content

As Winton notes, any content execution plan must be designed to deliver the most value across the board. Have some interesting data? Try turning it into a report.

At AIIM, paid members might receive the raw data points as well as a slide deck. Those who don’t pay may be able to access a free executive summary, an infographic and a webinar.

Reusing content is an essential strategy, too. For every piece of content the association creates, it gets around five additional uses, Winton says. When a report is created, paid members may receive the full report, the data and a slide deck.

Meanwhile, the organization will create a one-page executive summary, an infographic and a webinar that are available to everyone, plus dozens or even hundreds of social posts.

In some cases, the organization will also create local events that subscribers can pay to attend. Leveraging your content through these different channels makes it cheaper, more efficient and more impactful.

That’s the way to make the most of your content—getting the most eyeballs and clout for your organization. “That’s the point where most associations fail,” Winton says. “They don’t consider themselves the marketing machines they should be.”

Audience-first means digital-first

For many organizations, “audience first” means shifting to a digital-first mentality, because that’s where your audience is. Digital-first allows you to produce more quickly, be more responsive to audience need and be more cognizant of data. But getting there takes a full-throated commitment.

Take the American Geophysical Union (AGU), which is partway down that road. The association is working toward a platform that will allow users to see the content they want, customized to them, via an app. Rather than see content organized by categories like upcoming meetings, journals and news, content will be organized around discipline-related topics such as “man-made hazards,” or “planetary science.” Once users sign up for a topical feed, they’ll receive relevant updates on that subject, no matter its publishing source or format.

Eventually, AGU plans to add curated content as well. It’s a big change from requiring audiences to sift through an online library, journal content and meeting agenda to stay up on a topic. AGU’s digital-first strategy will deliver whatever information a person is interested in on whatever device they’re using.

It’s a labor-intensive process, Executive Director/CEO Chris McEntee says. One of the hardest aspects is shifting how the internal staff thinks about what they’re working on and producing every day. “We’re changing so everyone in the department is thinking about the entire person,” she says. “The biggest challenge is changing how people work.”